Paradise lost for the poor rabbits of Putney

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The Independent Culture
DRIVING UP to Scotland last week in temperatures better suited to Kerala than Cumbria, the houseguests took it in turns to tell hot-weather horror stories. The best was about the animal-loving child, goddaughter of one of the passengers, whose pet rabbit, maddened by the heat, savaged her pet hen. All this happened in Putney, by the way, a genteel London suburb whose gracious villas and manicured gardens accommodate more pet rabbits, gerbils, hamsters, tortoises, mice, kittens and Battersea Dogs Home rejects than all the other London suburbs put together.

Putney folk have a thing about animals. It must be the bracing air between river and Common. I once met a retired diplomat who had founded the Putney, Richmond and Mortlake Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Algerian Donkeys, (PRMSPCAD). His last posting had been in Algiers, he told me, and he and particularly his wife, Patricia, had been horrified at the appalling conditions in which the locals kept their underfed, overworked, disease-ridden, fly-infested, beasts of burden.

Once, strolling through a picturesque village in the Atlas Mountains, Patricia had put herself at considerable risk by wresting a blood-soaked whip from a man who was beating his donkey into oblivion for staggering under a crippling load of firewood. The donkey-owner's friends and family turned up in force to support him, and things were looking distinctly ugly until the diplomat offered to buy the by-now comatose animal and have it shipped back to the embassy. By the time they left Algiers Patricia had given asylum to 62 abused donkeys, funds for whose upkeep were regularly sent out in the diplomatic pouch thanks to the generosity of the PRMSPCAD.

But I digress. I was telling you about my friend's goddaughter whose overheated rabbit bit her pet hen. The child ran screaming into the house for help. At a glance her father took in the seriousness of the situation and sprang into action. Putney fathers are like that. He tied a handkerchief tightly round the chicken's neck ("To strangle it?" asked my husband with interest. "Certainly not," replied the houseguest huffily. "To staunch the blood, of course, like a tourniquet - that's where the rabbit bit it."), and put it in the back of the Volvo. Now for the rabbit, which was still careering madly round the garden, teeth bared, snapping at everything in sight. It was eventually cornered, restrained, bundled into the boot and driven to the vet along with the hen and the child.

Hours later, they emerged. The hen had had six stitches in its throat and the rabbit had had a hysterectomy. It was the only way, advised the vet, pocketing his substantial surgery fees, to ensure that she didn't run amok again.

A brooding silence fell over the passengers in the car. It was a shocking story. We were passing Loch Lomond at the time, but I suspect no one was thinking about its bonny, bonny banks. We were far too preoccupied with more sombre thoughts concerning childhood innocence, accident, mortality and, in the case of the rabbit, paradise lost. The only point of a rabbit, after all, is to breed. Yes, I know the hen got it in the neck, but six stitches compared to the loss of one's entire reproductory system is a small price to pay. I grieved for that rabbit. I really did.

To cheer us up, my husband turned on the car radio. It was an unfortunate choice, a discussion on Radio Scotland as to whether transsexuals should be entitled to have surgery on the National Health. What about pet rabbits being entitled not to have surgery but to fulfil their God-given role as mega-mothers, albeit in Putney?

The traffic update on Radio Clyde was that there were 60-100 mile tailbacks on the M5 with people flocking to Cornwall for the eclipse next week. The Samaritans, apparently, have set up emergency telephones on the hard shoulder to help families who have reached the end of their tethers due to stress, exhaustion and heat. Always heat.

Talking of blood in the afternoon, you may recall me telling you how famously Fred, my mother's pet pheasant, gets on with Meg, her cat.

Alas, poor Fred. We found him the other day, or the remains of him at least, feet-up in a flower bed, guts spilling gracefully on to the fallen rose petals.

As still-life goes it was not unattractive, but my mother was devastated. Meg, on the other hand, looks strangely smug. She doesn't usually like the heat, but of late she can be seen stretched out contentedly on the very spot where Fred popped his clogs.

Putney rabbit syndrome? Personally, I'd have that cat's guts for garters tomorrow.